Can Perez help Verstappen contain the Mercedes threat again?

2021 French Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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Max Verstappen has taken pole at the French Grand Prix, setting up a contest between Mercedes and Red Bull which is likely to come down to pit stop strategies and downforce decisions.

Tyre choices (or lack thereof)

With Sergio Perez fourth and the two Mercedes drivers separating the Red Bull drivers, the front two rows resemble an expensive Battenberg of bodywork. For every pit stop one team makes, the other has a driver on hand to cover it off. The teams therefore can therefore match each other punch for punch.

The start of the race will be an area of concern for Mercedes. It’s a fairly long run to the first corner, and if Perez can pass either of the W12s then Red Bull’s situation will instantly become stronger. He played this role to perfection in Baku, which is why he was on hand to collect the victory spoils when Verstappen’s luck deserted him.

All 10 drivers who reached Q3 did so on medium tyres, which comes as little surprise – eight of the cars that started in the top 10 in 2019 did the same thing. Expect single-stop strategies to be the order of the day.

Expect a routine one-stopper as drivers dodge the soft rubber
Pierre Gasly, who qualified sixth, expects “a more standard race track with the tyre management, tyre overheating and everything” compared to the last two encounters on the streets of Monaco and Baku.

For the drivers starting in the bottom half of the field, what sort of advantage will having a free choice of tyres confer? Antonio Giovinazzi, who qualified 13th, said Alfa Romeo had been aiming for the perfect, sweet spot just short of Q3.

“Our target was P11, to be close to the top 10 but not quite in it,” he said, “as we knew the soft tyres would not be a good compound for the race.

“Choosing our starting tyre will allow us to maximise our strategy: if we have a good start and a clean first lap, we can make up some places and make our way into the points. Our race pace wasn’t bad so we can be confident.”

Race pace analysis

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Paul Ricard, 2021
Mercedes’ race pace is a significant question mark
Changeable conditions at Paul Ricard, as well as some disruption to sessions so far, mean getting a clear idea of how cars will perform in the race is very difficult. Made more so by the fact conditions are set to change again tomorrow, though the chance of rain remains low.

Hamilton’s long run at the end of second practice gave little away about his potential pace. He hovered around a 1’38 lap for the short simulation stint he did, which looks unpromising, but as he pointed out later he’s made several changes to his car since then. “On long run pace I think the Red Bulls were a tenth or two quicker than us in FP2 but my car is in a much different place now,” he observed.

Sergio Perez was running around a 1’38.6, quite a bit slower, though it was at this point Verstappen’s race engineer pointed out his team mate was using a different engine mode. Verstappen averaged around a 1’37.7 lap – more encouraging for Red Bull fans, except that Bottas’ equivalent stint was around a 1’37.4.

Further back in the top ten, Pierre Gasly’s pace was around a 1’38.8 while Fernando Alonso’s was a 1’38.4. Alonso’s team mate Esteban Ocon, was closer to Gasly’s pace and, having qualified 11th, he is free to start on hard tyres tomorrow, which the Alpine cars looked much more competitive on

Carlos Sainz Jnr has been cautious about Ferrari’s race pace relative to their qualifying performance but they look at least comfortably midfield with a 1’38.3 for a medium stint.

The skies

Despite grey skies, race day is likely to remain dry
At the time of writing, the FIA’s weather forecast indicates a 20% chance of rain from the race start time. There is a higher chance of rain earlier in the day, which could diminish the rubber build-up on track which would likely have a negative effect on how well the tyres last.

Rain seldom plays a role at this venue, but wind does. A headwind in the straights will hurt high downforce cars, a tailwind might make low downforce cars hard to control into the corners.

A crosswind could just make life fairly difficult for everyone, on a circuit as exposed as Paul Ricard. All three managed to happen over the course of qualifying, so it’s probably best to think of the weather as chances to be taken when they’re there.

Red Bull trimmed out their cars ahead of qualifying. Will the reduction in downforce make it harder for them to look after their tyres? Sergio Perez said after qualifying he believes their rubber will hold up. But the shocking developments of the last race won’t be far from their minds, and it remains to be seen what effect Pirelli’s new restrictions on tyre use will have on Sunday.

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Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Qualifying times in full

DriverCarQ1

Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1Max VerstappenRed Bull1’31.0011’31.080 (+0.079)1’29.990 (-1.090)
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’31.2371’30.788 (-0.449)1’30.248 (-0.540)
3Valtteri BottasMercedes1’31.6691’30.735 (-0.934)1’30.376 (-0.359)
4Sergio PerezRed Bull1’31.5601’30.971 (-0.589)1’30.445 (-0.526)
5Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’32.0791’31.146 (-0.933)1’30.840 (-0.306)
6Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri1’31.8981’31.353 (-0.545)1’30.868 (-0.485)
7Charles LeclercFerrari1’32.2091’31.567 (-0.642)1’30.987 (-0.580)
8Lando NorrisMcLaren1’31.7331’31.542 (-0.191)1’31.252 (-0.290)
9Fernando AlonsoAlpine1’32.1581’31.549 (-0.609)1’31.340 (-0.209)
10Daniel RicciardoMcLaren1’32.1811’31.615 (-0.566)1’31.382 (-0.233)
11Esteban OconAlpine1’32.1391’31.736 (-0.403)
12Sebastian VettelAston Martin1’32.1321’31.767 (-0.365)
13Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo1’32.7221’31.813 (-0.909)
14Mick SchumacherHaas1’32.942
16Nicholas LatifiWilliams1’33.062
17Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo1’33.354
18Nikita MazepinHaas1’33.554
19Lance StrollAston Martin2’12.584

Sector times

DriverSector 1Sector 2Sector 3
Max Verstappen22.405 (2)27.388 (1)40.197 (1)
Lewis Hamilton22.374 (1)27.516 (2)40.358 (2)
Valtteri Bottas22.407 (3)27.527 (3)40.442 (4)
Sergio Perez22.420 (4)27.597 (4)40.428 (3)
Carlos Sainz Jnr22.427 (5)27.815 (11)40.598 (7)
Pierre Gasly22.487 (6)27.720 (7)40.591 (6)
Charles Leclerc22.516 (7)27.888 (15)40.583 (5)
Lando Norris22.615 (9)27.728 (8)40.777 (8)
Fernando Alonso22.578 (8)27.772 (9)40.957 (10)
Daniel Ricciardo22.798 (10)27.775 (10)40.778 (9)
Esteban Ocon22.836 (11)27.701 (5)41.086 (12)
Sebastian Vettel22.967 (13)27.711 (6)41.035 (11)
Antonio Giovinazzi22.846 (12)27.868 (13)41.089 (13)
Mick Schumacher23.275 (17)27.871 (14)41.733 (16)
Nicholas Latifi23.224 (16)27.889 (16)41.576 (15)
Kimi Raikkonen23.074 (14)28.072 (17)41.752 (18)
Nikita Mazepin23.464 (18)28.182 (18)41.751 (17)
Lance Stroll23.198 (15)27.826 (12)41.098 (14)

Speed trap

PosDriverCarEngineSpeed (kph/mph)Gap
1Max VerstappenRed BullHonda328.7 (204.2)
2Fernando AlonsoAlpineRenault328.1 (203.9)-0.6
3Esteban OconAlpineRenault327.7 (203.6)-1.0
4Sergio PerezRed BullHonda327.7 (203.6)-1.0
5Antonio GiovinazziAlfa RomeoFerrari327.2 (203.3)-1.5
6Pierre GaslyAlphaTauriHonda327.1 (203.3)-1.6
7George RussellWilliamsMercedes326.8 (203.1)-1.9
8Mick SchumacherHaasFerrari326.6 (202.9)-2.1
9Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedes326.6 (202.9)-2.1
10Valtteri BottasMercedesMercedes326.4 (202.8)-2.3
11Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrari325.4 (202.2)-3.3
12Daniel RicciardoMcLarenMercedes325.1 (202.0)-3.6
13Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedes324.3 (201.5)-4.4
14Charles LeclercFerrariFerrari324.0 (201.3)-4.7
15Sebastian VettelAston MartinMercedes323.8 (201.2)-4.9
16Nikita MazepinHaasFerrari323.4 (201.0)-5.3
17Nicholas LatifiWilliamsMercedes322.0 (200.1)-6.7
18Kimi RaikkonenAlfa RomeoFerrari322.0 (200.1)-6.7
19Lance StrollAston MartinMercedes320.6 (199.2)-8.1
20Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda225.7 (140.2)-103.0

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Over to you

Who will win the latest encounter between the title contenders? Share your views on the French Grand Prix in the comments.

2021 French Grand Prix

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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7 comments on “Can Perez help Verstappen contain the Mercedes threat again?”

  1. “Battenberg of bodywork”. I like it. But Perez really needs to be splitting the Mercs on a day like this, half a second off Verstappen in qualifying is not what Red Bull need from him.

    I expect his pace will be good in the race, but unless he can get a good start and leapfrog at least one of the “Black Arrows” at the start, I don’t see how he can do much to help Max.

    1. @David He’s a help as long as he stays in the mix and within Mercedes pit windows. Thus, the gualifying gap is irrelevant.

  2. The lap times of RB and AT really highlight the massive step Honda made on its PU. Both teams lost by far the least amount of time compared to 2019 (except for Williams, but that’s not too difficult given their awful car in ’19).
    They lapped just 0.5 (RB) and 0.4 (AT) slower than in 2019, which is a great effort, considering Mercedes, Ferrari & McLaren lost almost 2(!!) seconds to their best times from two years ago.

    This result just further proofs that Honda has the edge on Mercedes in terms of maximum power output, which doesn’t bode well for the defending champions. Given the next tracks (RB Ring & Silverstone) are even more power sensitive (as are Spa & Monza), Mercedes might have to maximise every opportunity they get to beat RB.
    Let’s see what happens tomorrow.

    1. This is the only race in which Red Bull were quicker than Mercedes in qualifying on full throttle sections. I am keen to see if they will maintain this advantage in the race, but they did confirm that they took off some wing on both cars. Someone also pointed out that Perez could be running less wing than Verstappen.

      1. @krichelle
        According to AMUS, this is the first time since Bahrain qualifying where Honda have actually run their engine at maximum power. Honda turned down their engines early on in the race in Bahrain because of software overheating issues, and they’ve been running a detuned engine ever since. The spec2 engine introduced this weekend has allegedly fixed that problem.

      2. I wouldn’t say this has been the first time RB had better speeds on the straights. They were already comfortably quicker in Bahrain (just in qualifying) and also a bit on the other circuits. So far Mercedes have turned it around in the races and had better straightline speed there.
        Maybe @kingshark is right and they solved their software issues, which have troubled the first engine spec. That actually sounds like a valid explanation. Or they simply trimmed of some downforce on their car.
        Anyway, we are about to find out this afternoon.

  3. It should be a fun race. Hopefully the top 4 remain Red Bull and Mercedes on lap 1 to have a proper race. Added that the teams are running different downforce setups, should be some fun too.

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